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Members include Chris Thile, mandolin, vocals; Sara Watkins, fiddle, vocals; Sean Watkins, guitar, vocals. Addresses: Record company--Sugar Hill, P.O. Box 55300, Durham, NC 27717-5300.
By the time Nickel Creek released This Side in 2002, the young bluegrass band had been nominated for two Grammy Awards and developed into a live-performance powerhouse. Fiddler Sara Watkins, mandolin player Chris Thile, and guitarist Sean Watkins combined smooth vocals, instrumental dexterity, and openness to a variety of genres to create a contemporary style grounded in tradition. "Bluegrass is where we were born," Thile told Deborah Evans Prices in Billboard, "but we've sort of grown up in all kinds of musical areas since then." The release of Nickel Creek in 2000 coincided with the resurgence of acoustic music in the wake of the Coen brothers' 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? "With bluegrass and old-time music enjoying a wave of popularity...," noted Michael Miller in State, "Nickel Creek finds itself in the right place at the right time."
Brother and sister Sean and Sara Watkins, along with Chris Thile, grew up in Southern California and began playing music together in the late 1980s. Sara Watkins made her first public performance singing "Long Black Veil" in 1985, while Sean Watkins and Chris Thile began mandolin lessons in 1986 with the same instructor. The three met at That Pizza Place, where their parents gathered each Saturday night to listen to the band Bluegrass, Etc. As the young pickers grew in proficiency, they began to join the band onstage. At first they dubbed themselves the Seldom Clean, but later opted for a name change after attending a festival in Texas at the Nickel Creek Ranch.
The band released Little Cowpoke in 1994 and Here to There in 1997. Thile's father, Scott, played bass with the band for a number of years, but decided to leave after the band recorded its third album. Chris Thile also released two solo albums during this time, Leading Off in 1994 and Stealing Second in 1997, establishing himself as an exciting new mandolin player and building a connection to Nickel Creek's future record label, Sugar Hill.
In 2000 the band released its official self-titled debut with modest expectations. The album caught on when "The Lighthouse's Tale" and "When You Come Back Down" gained exposure on Country Music Television (CMT), helping to sell an impressive 700,000 copies. "We live in a very visual age," Thile told Mario Tarradell in the Dallas News. "The success of music videos has proven that. It's different when bluegrass musicians are young and hopefully not hurtful to look at." Produced by Alison Krauss, the album garnered positive reviews and reached Billboard's Top 20 country chart. "We were incredibly grateful," Sara Watkins told Brian Mansfield in USA Today, "because that started the whole chain of events that has led to the buildup of the last few years." While "The Lighthouse's Tale," a story told from a lighthouse's point of view, highlighted Nickel Creek's willingness to take chances, instrumentals like "Ode to a Butterfly" and "Robin and Marian" showcased their musical dexterity. "Nickel Creek's ... first release heralds the arrival of a bluegrass band exploring and expanding the genre's possibilities," noted Gavin James Campbell in Southern Cultures.
Nickel Creek also developed a reputation as an explosive live act. "Onstage," wrote Terry Teachout in the New York Times, "they ignite this volatile mixture with a high-energy performance style reminiscent of rock 'n' roll." The band has performed in venues from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville to the Bottom Line in New York and toured with Lyle Lovett and Vince Gill. They also display their eclectic roots by mixing classic bluegrass with songs by Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan. "Nickel Creek's repertoire," wrote Dan Nailen in the Salt Lake Tribune, "ranges from rock to folk to jazz, encompassing virtually any genre that strikes their fancy while remaining rooted in acoustic music." Time described the band's sound as "Something like Dueling Banjos as remixed by Fat Boy Slim," while Nailen noted that, "All three members are inspired players ... capable of cutting loose and appealing to young fans who might not appreciate its 'old-time' roots." Nickel Creek has also appeared on Austin City Limits and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
In 2002 the band released This Side. Like their previous effort, the album retained a mixture of progressive and traditional acoustic music, of instrumentals and vocals. "We tried to keep the same attitude we had in recording the first one," Sean Watkins told Prices, "and that was that we just wanted to make a good record, something we would be proud of." The album also ventured into pop and rock, and while the band realized that hardcore bluegrass fans might fail to appreciate songs like their cover of Pavement's "Spit on a Stranger," they nonetheless persevered. "We were just trying to stay true to ourselves," Sara Watkins told Prices. Progressive instrumentals like "The Smoothie Song" sit side-by-side traditional fare like "House Carpenter" and contemporary singer-songwriter material like "Speak." "This Side solidifies Nickel Creek's position as the single most original and inventive bluegrass band to emerge in the early '00s," noted Charles Spano of All Music Guide, while Bill Craig of the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote, "Whether borrowed or original, each song is shaped by a freewheeling approach to acoustic picking that borrows from a bunch of genres but fits comfortably in none."
In 2001 Nickel Creek won the International Bluegrass Music Association's award for Instrumental Group of the Year and in 2002 Time named Nickel Creek one of five "Music Innovators for the Millennium." Sean Watkins released his first solo album, Let It Fall, in 2001, while Thile released his third solo project, Not All Who Wander Are Lost, and made guest appearances on albums by Dolly Parton and the Dixie Chicks. "Nickel Creek," Time noted, "has been hailed by country fans turned off by the superslick pop sound that Nashville has been peddling in recent years." The band has also built a bridge to young audiences by drawing material and stylistic flourishes from nontraditional genres. Some critics even suggested that Nickel Creek has invented a brand-new genre, nicknamed "Youthgrass" by one reviewer. "Right now," Sean Watkins told Miller, "we're just trying to make the kind of music we like to hear. We're trying to be the kind of band we would want to go see."
by Ronald D. Lankford Jr
Nickel Creek's Career
Group formed, late 1980s; recorded Little Cowpoke, 1994, and Here to There, 1997; signed with Sugar Hill, recorded Nickel Creek, 2000; released This Side, 2002.
Nickel Creek's Awards
International Bluegrass Music Association, Instrumental Group of the Year, 2001; Grammy Award, Contemporary Folk Album forThis Side, 2003.
- Billboard, August 8, 2002.
- Dallas Morning News, November 30, 2001.
- New York Times, May 27, 2001, p. 2.20.
- Richmond Times-Dispatch, August 22, 2002, p. D14.
- Salt Lake Tribune, August 27, 2002, p. B1.
- Southern Cultures, Fall 2001, p. 85.
- State (Columbia, SC), March 27, 2002.
- Time, May 28, 2001, p. 70.
- USA Today, August 14, 2002, p. 03D.
- "Nickel Creek," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (September 1, 2002).
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